Find out what you as an artist want to say…and that means having something to say and then getting into the world around you, says the National Portrait Gallery of London’s 20th Century Art Curator Paul Moorhouse. Read more on Richard Hamilton, the father of Pop Art, and more.
Hometown: London, UK
Current Residence: National Portrait Gallery
Occupation: Curator, 20th Century
Areas of Focus: Portraiture;International 20th Century and Contemporary art
Website: National Portrait Gallery
To celebrate the life of Richard Hamilton the National Portrait Gallery is putting on a memorial exhibition to remember the father of pop art. What does it mean to have this show in the National Portrait Gallery?
As one of the founders of Pop Art in Britain, Richard Hamilton was among this country’s most important and respected artists. Richard Hamilton – Portraits of the Artist is a display drawn from the Gallery’s holdings of portraits of Hamilton. It comprises various images, from important photographs by Lord Snowdon and Jorge Lewinski to works by David Hockney and Hamilton himself, and pays tribute to a remarkable career and life.
The memorial exhibition was supposed to be for the great artist’s 90th birthday in February, but with his passing in September it was changed to a memorial display. Did anything change in terms of what was going to be shown?
No, nothing changed in terms of content. The display was intended as an overview that charts Hamilton’s artistic development through portraits and it still does this. However, the way the display is presented had to be adjusted, changing from celebration to something more retrospective in tone.
The exhibition displays portraits from some of the greatest artists and photographers, including as David Hockney, Lord Snowdon, Francis Bacon, Carolyn Djanogly and Jorge Lewinski. What does this say about the popularity of Richard Hamilton?
I think it says a lot about the Hamilton’s artistic profile and prestige. He was portrayed by some of the leading artists and photographers of his time and the display reflects that.
How did the National Portrait Gallery get these photos for display?
All were drawn from the Gallery’s own collection, having been acquired over a number of years.
The National Portrait Gallery is showing photos from as early as 1960, during his first year in America with Lord Snowdon. How did his time in America shape Hamilton’s life and work?
Hamilton visited America for the first time in 1963. This trip brought him into direct contact with American artists such as Andy Warhol and others associated with Pop Art in the USA. He also was able to experience American culture at first hand. This contact and exposure fed Hamilton’s art and, I sense, expanded its range of reference. However, he had been fascinated by American consumer culture for many years, before setting foot in America. So I think it developed those interests and concerns which had already been evident throughout the 1950s.
Hamilton is often described as the most influential artist of the 20th Century. In his long and productive life he created the most important and enduring works of any modern British painter. What was it that made his work, as pioneering as it was, so extraordinary and distinguished him from others in the artistic community?
Hamilton, together with Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull and other members of the Independent Group which met in London in the early 1950s, was fascinated by the mass culture that developed in America in the post-war period. Through their art, a shared concern with the evidence of that culture – from advertising to magazines, and from consumer packaging to modern cinema – introduced Britain to a new, then unfamiliar way of life. Hamilton, in particular, brought to bear an acute, critical sensibility, at once celebratory and probing that, as he said, sought to ‘signify an understanding of man’s changing state’. In that respect, I think his achievement was utterly distinctive.
The collage entitled “What is it that Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” was to many critics the first piece of Pop Art. What was it about this particular piece that made him so prominent and widely recognized?
This image was produced by Hamilton as a poster and as an catalogue illustration for the important exhibition This is Tomorrow, held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London in 1956. That group show explored the connection between art and modern life and Hamilton was one of the exhibitors, included in a final section that explored popular culture in detail. His collage is a remarkable image, not least in the way it contains in microcosm the essential characteristics of Pop Art. Hamilton himself had previously listed these by way of preparation for the image: ‘Man, Woman, Food, History, Newspapers, Cinema, Domestic Appliance, Cars, Space Comics, TV, Telephone, Information.’ Significantly, it also contained the word ‘Pop’. As such, ‘Just what is it…’ can now be seen as a kind of manifesto for one of the most important post-war movements.
The visual language of contemporary society – advertisements, consumer products, fashion, cinema, design etc. – fascinated Hamilton. How does his work portray what he felt about these subjects?
Hamilton’s art teems with references to contemporary culture but I do not think that his emotions, or even his point of view, are always obvious. His attitude is distanced, somewhat removed, and at times inscrutable. For this reason, some have criticised his work for being cold and too cerebral. However, I think he presents the evidence of the contemporary world in a compelling way and draws in the viewer, inviting a response but not prescriptively.
His work was also very thought-provoking and topical; treating subjects such as the Irish Troubles (portrait of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands) and the war in Iraq. What was Hamilton trying to depict through these pieces of work?
As suggested, here as in his earlier work, Hamilton presents the facts, in this instance the evidence of incarceration and invasion. It is then up to the viewer to form a response to Hamilton’s depiction of these controversial events.
As a art curator you must notice certain patterns and trends. What would you say is the best way to get work noticed and into a gallery for new artists?
I think the best art is never fashion-driven or simply attention-seeking. Getting work noticed is only the beginning; once noticed, an artist then has to keep going. Unless they have something to say, in a language they have developed that is appropriate to what they want to say, their endeavours will quickly fade. So it is really important to be true to yourself: find out what it is you want to convey, and then find your own way of saying it. This is what Hamilton did –and it sustained a career that lasted for over fifty years.